There’s been quite the give and take in the OIB comments section about the role of clergy in the political community. Herron Gaston, senior pastor of Summerfield United Methodist Church, declares in this commentary, “I reject as false the notion that the Black preacher should strictly stick to the pulpit and do not cross-pollinate into the political arena.”
I would like to call for calm over the vitriolic and contentious verbal aggressiveness and assault over the role of the clergy in public religious life. Recently, an article directed at me by Retired Judge Lopez, and indirectly at my clergy colleagues who are politically involved or have political aspirations in the City of Bridgeport, has sparked a considerable amount of unconstructive dialogue about the role of the Black preacher. Though Judge Lopez’s commentary seeks to address clergy from all backgrounds engaging in the political process. I have filtered through several comments on OIB platform and have come to appreciate all of your contributions and opinions, though there are many views that I vehemently disagree with, but that I wholeheartedly respect. I think too much time and energy has been expended to this divisive issue, and I ask that we find constructive ways to come together as a collective community to fix our gaze on improving the plight of our beloved community. This post is not a rebuttal to Judge Lopez’s critique of me or those in my profession, but some history into the role of the Black preacher.
I am not interested in the art of character assassination or counter character assassinations, nor do I see the need to defend myself or my position in the court of public opinion. I think that my credibility and track record of proven leadership in various aspects of the human endeavor speaks for itself, and those who know me best, would be in a better position to speak to my intentions and goodwill. And for those who are unfamiliar with me, I hope to gain your respect and trust overtime as I continue to provide spiritual nourishment to my flock and public advocacy for the issues that matters most to our community.
Therefore, what I would like to examine is the enduring report card of the Black prophetic tradition since I saw a substantial number of comments centered around this topic that I think is paramount to address.
There is a historic relationship between Black clergy and American politics that stems back decades. Black Christian ministers, historically by definition, were and to a large extent, still are social activist, articulating the concerns for justice on behalf of their parishioners and the broader Black and minority communities. The Black preacher has always used their community activism as a catalyst to influence policies and sociopolitical agendas on municipal, state, and national levels. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other pastors like Jade Jackson, C.T. Vivian, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jessie Jackson, Sr. were crucial voices in the fight for civil rights and were fearless leaders and religious advocates of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s.
Dr. King and other Black preachers held press conferences within their churches and opened their doors to politicians, statesman, secular judges, and others to strategize and plan how to mobilize the Black community to fight against social inequality.
The Black preacher often became the mouthpiece for articulating the grievances and concerns of Black people, and they became strategists who shaped the objectives and methodologies on how the grievances of Black people would be addressed and dealt with in the public domain. This reality still holds true in large part today with respect to the role of the Black preacher. Black preachers always infused into the ethos of the Black church that social activism is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. And that Jesus has a preferential option to stand alongside the poor and the dispossessed. In fact, the Black prophetic Christian tradition sees Jesus as a notoriously prophetic political figure who compassionately embraced a social Gospel. Towards that end, exegetically, the role of Jesus in the Temple and outside of the Temple could be radically interpreted that Jesus delicately straddled the ecclesial-political fence.
Hence, there is strong scholarly support and biblical evidence that holds the position that the bible is replete with countless of examples of religious leaders being actively involved in public life, who served or served as advisors to members of the government, which arguably, could be synonymous to occupying public office which did not contaminate or taint their Christian witness among their followers. On this basis, many who espouse the Black prophetic tradition, is open to the idea of Black preachers serving the sacred community and the secular community.
For instance, in 1963, my black forefathers, from whose well I am birthed, entered the political scene in New York and forced the State of New York and the trade union to hire Black and Latino construction workers. And at the same time, stood up against the Board of Education, demanding that all people, but especially ethnic minorities be given a decent shot at a quality education that attempted to render them inferior. Hence, a surge of Black pastors and ministers ran for public office, severed on various boards and commissions throughout the City of New York, forcing the demonic conscious of America to become more inclusive and democratic. Put simply, a cadre of Black preachers have always been involved in both the church and in politics. I would argue that it is not about taunting their resumes in an attempt to draw admiration from the political machine, or for their own personal advancement, but rather to inspire hope in those who feel that such accomplishments are impossible to attain, and to provide a more promising hope that is not just eschatological but a material reality.
With that said, the first Black person to serve in Congress was a Black preacher, the late Rev. Hiram Rhodes Revels, who was a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880. Fast forward to the time of Reconstruction, Rev. Richard H. Cain, another Methodist minister served in Congress while simultaneously pastoring a church. The infamous, more contemporary, Baptist pastor and theologian par excellence, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the first Black person to serve in Congress from New York, while effectively “nurturing” and providing “spiritual enrichment” to his parishioners. Arguably, almost singlehandedly, Rev. Powell helped to create more access to educational opportunities and jobs for Blacks and other ethnic minorities in the urban centers of New York City and Spanish Harlem than any of his contemporaries. It was important and remain of supreme importance that our Black and Brown boys and girls see positive role models in their respective communities, so that they might see that as worthy of imitation.
Therefore, I reject as false the notion that the Black preacher should strictly stick to the pulpit and do not cross-pollinate into the political arena. This kind of prophetic witness is germane to the Black prophetic tradition, which draws inspiration from biblical contemporaries such as Moses, Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah. Any attempt to adjudicate and to suffocate the voice of Black preachers who adopt the Black prophetic tradition–and who also choose to hold a political position/appointment–is equivalent to bastardizing our ancestors which is antithetical to the interest of justice for Black folks who have an allegiance or adherence to this unique strand of the Black church. I would caution with significant care and sanctity not to tamper with the celestial witness of the Black saints on whose labor we rest and on whose sacrifices we have all profited.